Terry Johnson’s 1994 play still hits all the right notes in this highly anticipated revival complete with stellar cast.
Now I’m the first person to admit that I am not well-acquainted with the comedy legends of years gone by. Sure, I’ve heard of Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill, but I couldn’t tell you any of their famous sketches or catchphrases. So I was quite apprehensive that I’d feel excluded from the jokes when seeing Dead Funny, a play which revolves around a comedy appreciation society, last night.
But I am anything but excluded. I am welcomed by ushers who politely welcome me to 1992, and the stage has projected television screens showing famous comic routines.’Smile’ by Nat King Cole plays as the curtain rises.
A play set in the living room of Richard (Rufus Jones) and Ellie (Katherine Parkinson), this couple in their late ’30s have a dysfunctonal marriage and very different needs – Ellie is desperate for a baby, whilst Richard has decided he is celibate and will not be touched, instead focusing his efforts on being chairman of the ‘Dead Funny’ society, whose members also include Brian (Steve Permberton), Nick (Ralf Little), and his wife Lisa (Emily Berrington).
Parkinson and Jones work incredibly well together as a couple. Jones is ambling yet vulnerable, and Parkinson is a silent firecracker; the ultimate in sarcasm and deadpan comments. There is a funny yet sadly tinged moment in the opening scene where Parkinson attempts to give Jones a ‘sensual’ naked massage, and both actors create the hilarious awkwardness incredibly well.
The other members of the cast are equally as finessed, riding the line between absolutely hilarious and painfully sad with ease. Berrington, as seemingly clueless Lisa, recreates the “young dumb blonde role” into a character with a hidden depth, as seen when she tells Ellie she is “really, really sorry”, before heading upstairs to lie down. Little, as her husband Nick, is bumbling and unfortunately the character most likely to be forgotten as the events unfold. It is only his scene in which he confesses his doubts about his paternity to best friend Richard, that we see a glimpse of a man at the end of his tether.
In between these two couples is Steve Pemberton’s Brian. Popping in and out at inappropriate times and making witty remarks, he’s an absolute gem. But he’s more than comic relief between the two feuding couples. Pemberton’s delivery of Brian coming out is fantastic, and a real heart wrencher.
Though I had qualms that i wouldn’t understand the references – that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it funny. Sure, I may not have got a few inside jokes, but I found the skits as funny as they probably were to people watching the originals – the comedy still stands.
Yet despite the pale imitations of these comic moments, none of the members of the ‘Dead Funny’ Society are actually that funny. It is stand-offish Ellie who truly delivers all of the genius one-liners, including a harsh joke which stuns the audience into silence with a series of “ooohs”. A perfect reaction.
The set is ordinary, realistic, and very ’90s with its video tapes and box television – Bob the skeleton, lounging in the corner, changes poses each scene, becoming an embodiment of comics watching over the society. It is at the end, when the set is demolished by food and broken furniture, even ripped-off clothes, that these characters become abused by all of the things which brought them together: Custard pies and trifles cover the carpet and the curtains. It’s an interesting mix of the funny and the tragic.
There isn’t too much comedy today in the West End, and perhaps this play taps into the reason why: behind every comic moment and laugh, there’s something deeper and more painful we are trying to cover up. As soon as we have recovered from laughing our socks off, we realise the deadpan look and pain in the speaker’s eyes.
But it’s brilliant.
Thank you very much to London Theatre Bloggers and the StageDoor App for allowing me to see this production, I had a fantastic show! You can download the StageDoor app here: http://apple.co/1sglYkH and find them on Twitter @stagedoorLDN.
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